SunTrust executive Raymond King new head of Zoo

By Maria Saporta
Friday, May 14, 2010

After 22 years with SunTrust Banks Inc., Raymond King would have been happy to spend his whole career with the Atlanta-based bank.

“I’ve had the best job,” King said of his role as SunTrust’s senior vice president for community affairs for the past eight years.

But a confluence of personal and professional events have now led to King, 44, becoming the new president and CEO of Zoo Atlanta.

Last year, King was diagnosed with cancer along with a related condition — neuropathy — a nerve-related disease that made it extremely painful for him to walk.

“2009 was the most rewarding year of my life,” King said in all seriousness. “When you go through something like that, it leads you to be more introspective; it forces you to re-examine the way you look at life. Inevitably it leads you to realize that life is fragile. It makes you realize how blessed you are.”

For King, much of that blessing is his family — his wife, Robin, and his 8-year-old daughter, Courtney, a lover of animals. It just so happened that “the zoo has been a shared family passion.”

Last December, Dennis Kelly, president and CEO of Zoo Atlanta since 2003, announced he would be leaving in mid-February to become the new executive of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington.

King sent a congratulatory e-mail to Kelly and a sympathetic note to Zoo Atlanta’s incoming board chairman, Brad Benton, that he would have to begin his tenure by conducting a search for a new CEO.

King and Benton, KPMG LLP’s national account leader of health care, got together for lunch to talk about the zoo. Benton was so impressed with the astuteness of King’s insights that he asked if might be interested in the job, something King had not considered.

“My cancer did influence my thinking. How often is an opportunity going to come to lead a major cultural institution in Atlanta?” King said. Now his cancer is gone, and the pain of neuropathy has subsided and is expected to go away completely. “It certainly won’t inhibit my ability to lead the zoo,” King said.

Zoo Atlanta also has had strong ties to SunTrust, formerly Trust Company Bank. In 1984, the zoo was declared one of the 10 worst in the nation, a major embarrassment for the city and its business community. The late Robert Strickland, top executive at Trust Company at the time, chaired the effort to raise $7 million from the business and philanthropic community to rebuild the zoo into a more natural habitat.

As King’s current boss at SunTrust, Jenner Wood, said: “Raymond is cut out of the same cut of silk as Bob Strickland was.”

Wood said that as much as the bank hates losing King, the zoo is a great opportunity for him to keep contributing to the community. “Raymond has been a wonderful emissary for the bank. He significantly raised our presence in the community,” said Wood, president and CEO of SunTrust’s Central Group, overseeing Georgia and Tennessee.

One of King’s roles has been as board chairman of the Fernbank Museum of Natural History, a position he has to give up because of his new role at the zoo.

“Raymond has been a great leader here at Fernbank, and he really has contributed an enormous amount to this institution,” said Susan Neugent, Fernbank’s president and CEO. “We will miss him tremendously, but it’s going to be fun to work together in this different capacity.”

King’s civic connections were a key factor in him being selected as Zoo Atlanta’s CEO, Benton said. A national search was conducted by the Parker executive search firm. The goal was to find someone with business and leadership acumen who had a passion for the zoo’s mission of education and conservation, and someone who had “a strong ability to connect with the Atlanta community,” Benton said.

Benton said he expects King will build on the legacies of the two previous leaders of Zoo Atlanta — Terry Maple and Kelly. “We all believe the zoo is poised for even greater things,” Benton said. “I think that Raymond can take us from one terrific place to the next terrific place.”

The zoo is in relatively good shape with an annual budget of about $15 million; 200 employees and 1,000 “critters.”

Just before he left, Kelly helped negotiate another five-year agreement with the Chinese government to allow Zoo Atlanta to keep its pandas and popular exhibit for nearly half of what it was paying — from $1.1 million a year to $570,000 a year. “For the most part, the zoo is breaking even, excluding the pandas,” King said.

That’s a far cry from the $19.5 million debt that Kelly faced when he took over.

Initially, his goal will be to “increase the core profitability of the business” through stronger family-oriented marketing and raising its profile as well as increasing the zoo’s financial support through operating income, contributions and sponsorships.

“I have almost a sense of awe of what I’m about to take on,” King said. “It’s a phenomenal opportunity for me to give back to my city.”

And on the personal side, King said his daughter is delighted he accepted this “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity.

“She’s already is calling herself a vice president,” King said. “It further bonds me with my daughter. It’s going to be fun to live this out together.”

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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